#20: (Sandy) Alex G – House Of Sugar
Irrepressible, off-the-wall, and more than a little absurd, indie musician (Sandy) Alex G has made a career out of two things since dropping his debut in 2014: being as prolific as Ty Segall and being even more willing to play whatever the hell has come into his head in the last five minutes. House of Sugar marks his first album not put together in his bedroom but it keeps the manic, playlist-on-shuffle feel of his previous music. There’s just MORE of it – more instruments, more voices, more ideas.
“The Horsemen Now Have Come”
The best robot-rap track I ever did, except maybe for one that I’ll post later on. This one has a wicked-slice synth that adds a real menace to everything. The robot’s name is Sandwich Maker 775-C, he’s a real robot from the streets, and he’ll fuck you up as soon as look at you. As far as I recall, anyway – this WAS 13 years ago.
Eric B. & Rakim – Paid In Full
Released July 7th, 1987 on 4th & B’way Records and Island Records
Is Paid In Full the peak of hip hop’s first Golden Age? No, because saying that implies that there has ever been a period in hip hop that couldn’t have been considered a great time for the genre (ok, ok, 1995-1999 weren’t mind-blowing but there was a lot of great stuff going on in the underground, etc. etc.) It is a definite guide-post of the Eighties, however, and it pioneered some stuff that would become standard in hip hop from 1987 onward. Rakim’s rapping is the key thing: he pioneered using internal rhymes, rather than the end-of-the-meter type that had been (and to an extent still is) the most popular way to rhyme in hip hop. Internal rhyming allowed Rakim to paint his words across the beats, rather than tie himself to them, which made his interplay with Eric B’s turntables that much more thrilling. It’s like hearing jazz give birth to itself (fitting, since Rakim was a huge Coltrane fan), and any great lyricist in the past thirty years has mentioned Rakim at least in passing in one interview or another. Rakim and Big Daddy Kane’s more intricate rhyme structures gave Marshall Mathers the inspiration to build his own style, and everyone knows that Eminem is the standard when sneering white boys want to assert that hip hop is just about “lyrics” and “flow”. On second thought, forget it. Rhyming was a mistake.
Eric B, meanwhile, lays down a solid foundation of beats that will rattle the foundations of whatever building you happen to play them in. They are also the product of a serious sampling jones, and the argument over whether sampling is a legitimate form of expression stems from here; James Brown himself sued the group over a sample in “Eric B Is President”. The ideas he put together here – gritty beats, thick bass, soul samples, horns, whistles, etc. – have an obvious if somewhat indirect influence on RZA, who was himself the most influential producer of his era. “Eric B. Is President” is still the funkiest track here, but others more than hold their own, notably “I Ain’t No Joke”, “Move The Crowd”, and the title track.
Ironically, Eric B. sued Island/Def Jam and Russell Simmons in 2003, alleging that neither he nor Rakim had ever been paid in full for the royalties from the album.
Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever
Released June 3rd, 1997 on Loud Records & RCA Records
According to legend, Wu producer/abbot RZA struck a deal with the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan in 1992: if they agreed to give RZA total control without question for five years, he would ensure that they would change hip hop and become the number one group in America. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was the beginning of this plan; in 1997, when the sprawling double-CD Wu-Tang Forever was released, they had achieved RZA’s plan and then some. It’s easy to talk about Dre and NWA changing hip hop, or Biggie, or Pac, but the Wu brought hip hop to a wider audience than anyone else. The social aspect of the Clan was it’s biggest selling feature; it was never enough to just like the music. Liking the music lead to wanting to know about each member, and tracking down their solo records, and picking apart their verses in a comparative fashion. Was Method Man the best rapper? The GZA, with his esoteric verses? The balls-out crassness of Ol’ Dirty Bastard? The cinematic majesty of Ghostface Killah? Even rural regions erupted in Wu symbols and white boys suddenly interested in rap and gritty NYC rappers.
Wu-Tang Forever is the cap on this era, a blown-out tribute to everyone’s collective skills. Enter The Wu Tang was very minimalist, when it came to production; the RZA’s style had it’s genesis there, but his work on GZA’s Liquid Swords, Meth’s Tical, and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx expanded his pallet exponentially, and that expansion is keenly felt on Wu-Tang Forever. In addition to the grimey drum sound that he was famous for at the time, Wu-Tang Forever saw RZA adding in horns, strings, lush samples, and a myriad of other instrumentation to make the album much denser than Enter The Wu Tang had been. Of special note is his penchant on this record for chopping up old soul songs and speeding up the pieces to use as samples; if this sounds oddly familiar, it’s because Kanye West built his name on doing the exact same thing for Jay-Z’s stable. To go along with the supreme density of RZA’s production, the group went abstract on their lyrics, piling on wordplay and slang until it became a thick stew of instantly quotable near-nonsense that managed to remain coherent and thrilling despite that. The peak of this verbal insanity was the single, “Triumph”, which was six minutes, had no chorus, and still managed to be the best single song to come out of 1997 by a wide margin.
There are two major flaws in the record that manage to diminish all of the above, however. The first is the bizarre Five Percenter religious weirdness that is embedded in the record, especially on the lead-in track “Wu-Revolution”, which manages to deny evolutionary theory out of hand without any, you know, evidence. The second flaw is the length; at two full CDs even the magic of the Wu wears thin, and while there are a lot of great tracks on the album the second disc starts to bog down halfway through (somewhere around “Dog Shit” or “Duck Seazon”). It’s a drawback that a lot of contemporary hip hop suffered from, an idea that it was better to jam as much music, filler or not, in order to justify CD prices in the mid-1990s. Still, the album remains a classic, and certainly the last great album that the Wu recorded as a collective.
The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death
Released March 25th, 1997 on Bad Boy Records
Ready To Die was a massive album, the kind of once-in-a-generation record that changes the course of a genre. Sure, you can point to Pac and the Wu, but Biggie made a gigantic impact on subsequent MCs in terms of flow, beat choice, and lyrical subject matter. No one was as smooth or as coldly vicious as Biggie at his peak; no one’s beats landed quite like gunshots in a robbery gone wrong. Life After Death was thematically designed to be the logical sequel to that fabled album, and also to be a sort of “commercial introduction” of the rapper. While there were some undeniable hits that came off of Ready To Die, a lot of the album was too grim, too dark and real for mainstream radio to really mine it to death. Life After Death was a response to this; the beats here were pure radio circa 1997, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s very much a Bad Boy record, Puff Daddy and all, which means it’s slick and easy to bump in the whip; at the same time, a lot of the beats haven’t aged particularly well, using samples that just don’t create the same excitement in 2017 that they did twenty years prior. “I Love The Dough” is a good example of this; the electro-funk sample was two years out of date even then, and the hook is too bland to fit Biggie’s dark flow. Along the same lines, the length of the album is problematic as well; hip hop has always loved to throw as much material as possible onto a record, and the double-CD length of Life After Death makes it drag a bit near the end. None of the songs are weak, per se, but there is a sort of fatigue that sets in regardless of the quality.
Still, it’s Biggie, which means that whenever he appears on a song it immediately makes up for whatever dated samples or cheesy hooks are being used. Even at his most commercial no one could touch him, then or now, and his flow remains as vital as ever. The singles are all top-notch: put “Hypnotize”, “Mo Money Mo Problems”, or “Going Back To Cali” on anywhere and people will get into it. At it’s thuggiest, it’s equivalent to parts of Ready To Die: “Kick In The Door” and “What’s Beef” are chilling and violent, in the way that only Biggie could be, and “Ten Crack Commandments” remains a street anthem two decades after it’s release. He even gets downright filthy on “Fucking You Tonight” and “Nasty Boy”, an aspect of his personality that was largely absent on Ready To Die.
The man’s death sixteen days before the release of Life After Death tends to overshadow the actual music, of course. After presenting an award at the 1997 Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles, Biggie’s car got caught in post-show traffic at Wilshire and South Fairfax. An Impala pulled up beside his SUV, rolled down the window, and shot him four times. He died a half an hour later. The album is thus shrouded in symbolism, from it’s title to it’s album cover to it’s bookending tracks. It is, in essence, a posthumous bit of self-mythologizing, a meta-narrative that delves into everything that made up Christopher Wallace’s public persona. There’s brash posturing, there’s loving tenderness, there’s future-ready ambition, there’s chilling fragments of premonition. “What’s Beef?”, “Somebody’s Gotta Die”, and the goosebump-inducing closer “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” are bleak in retrospect, given the likelihood that Wallace was murdered as revenge for his alleged role in the death of Tupac Shakur six months earlier. In that sense, the album’s length can be forgiven, and even cherished; these are the last releases that Wallace meant to go public, and despite Bad Boy’s willingness to raid his vault forever thereafter, it is his last real album. Ready To Die may be the better album, but Life After Death is a fitting memorial to an enormous personality that still stands at an imposing height over an entire genre of music.
Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded
Released March 3rd, 1987 on B-Boy Records
Before Biggie and Pac, before Snoop, Dre, and NWA, there was KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock, otherwise known as Boogie Down Productions. Hailing from the South Bronx, they took spare drum machine beats and Jamaican dancehall rhythms and spun frank discussions of the reality of life in the streets in Eighties NYC over them. It provided a template for what would eventually become known as “gangsta rap” when Dre did basically the same thing, but on the West Coast and more hardcore. “9mm Goes Bang” and “The P Is Free” are basically the two basic gangsta tracks in vogue from Straight Outta Compton through to the moment 50 Cent lost a sales competition to Kanye West. That’s nearly twenty years of guns and hoes, budding directly from Criminal Minded; while KRS-One adopted the moniker of “Teacha” for a completely different reason, one could make the argument that he taught an entire generation of vinyl thugs how to spit. “South Bronx” and “The Bridge Is Over” also pioneered the “this place vs. that place” trope that hip-hop ran on in the Nineties. BDP and their associates insisted that hip hop began in the South Bronx; rival MCs in the Juice Crew felt that the honour should go to Queensbridge instead, starting a rivalry that didn’t last long but provided another template for hip-hop music.
Another template for hip hop music was unfortunately set five months after the release of Criminal Minded. After befriending a local kid (D-Nice, later a BDP member and the person that discovered Kid Rock in 1988), DJ Scott La Rock went to go make peace between D-Nice and a rival group of kids. One of the rival group started spraying bullets everywhere and Scott was clipped in the neck, and died shortly after. In the aftermath of his death, the group’s deal with Warner Bros. fell through and KRS-One decided that his efforts would be better spent forming the Stop The Violence Movement and pursuing more socially conscious hip hop, a format that he would become far better known for than the early hardcore tendencies found on Criminal Minded. Regardless of his later career, though, Criminal Minded stands as the jumping-off point for a lot of what hip hop would become as the Eighties turned into the Nineties and beyond.
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Released May 13th, 2016
During the wild, chaotic run-up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye West announced that it would be a “gospel album”, inspired by the African-American tradition of blending worship in church with soaring choral music that God himself might hear. Despite the label, the only gospel moments on the album were the admittedly brilliant opener “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlight”, an intro to the more traditional (and Young Thug guesting) “Highlight”.
Fellow Chicago musician Chance The Rapper was on the former, and it’s Chance The Rapper that is now bringing out what ‘Ye promised: a full-on gospel hip hop record, embracing the worldliness of life in often-violent Chicago, and simultaneously the glory and life guide of his religion. Rather than the lysergic uncertainty of his breakthrough Acid Rap, Coloring Book finds a man confident in his faith and in sorrow for his city and his people. “Blessings (Reprise)” has him saying “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform”, and this serves as a good overarching theme for the record as a whole. It’s an album that stands in direct contrast to the nihilistic, violent drill scene that Chicago is known for; rather than a finger-waving sermon, though, tracks like “Summer Friends” seem to offer a prayer for those caught up in the summertime violence that is endemic to the drug and gang-ridden city streets. The problem with overtly “Christian” artists is that the music often seems to take a backseat to the message; they’re so concerned with connecting with “the kids” that they don’t take the time to actually figure out what makes the secular music so appealing in the first place. Chance succeeds exactly where “Christian rap” or “Christian rock” fails: he lets his faith infuse his music, rather than supersede it. He’s intensely relatable, even when you’re outside of the continuum of his experience.
Even better in this day and age, Chance is staunchly independent. He doesn’t need a label, and he doesn’t need to sell his album just to fulfill label quotas. Coloring Book is free, and as such it’s technically classified as a mixtape. It’s a subject he addresses on “No Problem” with Lil’ Wayne (no stranger to label problems himself) and “Mixtape” (with ultra-prolific fellow mixtaper Young Thug), but it’s also a subject he brought up originally on “Ultralight Beam”: “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet”. Mixtapes are ineligible for Grammys, and if there’s an album that deserves a Grammy it’s Coloring Book – a fact that perhaps led Chance to release it on DatPiff and then shortly after make it a short-term iTunes exclusive. Nonwithstanding whether having it on a paid streaming service makes it “for sale”, Chance’s Twitter fans ended up tweeting all of the lyrics to Coloring Book. They’re a loyal group and Chance is the sort of artist to reward them for their loyalty with both quality and (between his own work, his guest spots, and his gig fronting Chicago experimental pop group The Social Experiment) quantity.
Chance deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of modern hip hop – your Weezys, Drizzys, Yeezys, K. Dots, et al. He’s got a killer flow, has a Kendrick-like appreciation for intricate wordplay, and has the ability to ride a vibe for all it’s worth better than pretty much anyone else. In a genre dominated by a careful balance between artistry and crass mercenary sales grubbing, Chance takes the left hand path and is all the better for it.
AND THE REST…
Always Strive And Prosper
04/22/2016 on Polo Grounds Music
The perennial also-ran to A$AP Rocky comes into his own with a solid album of hard-hitting verses backed with a staggering amount of high-profile guest spots.
04/22/2016 on Pink Flag Records
Eight songs from 2015’s Wire record were redone for this mini-LP. As it turns out, the pioneers of jittery indie rock fall apart when they try to hold themselves still even for a moment.
04/22/2016 on Carpark Records
Toronto has a reputation for noisy rock ‘n’ roll – emphasis on the noise part. In the grand tradition of METZ, Fucked Up, et al. comes Greys, who pile noisy parts on top of each other until they approximate songs. While their sound has expanded somewhat from their debut, it’s still fairly limited in terms of it’s overall impact. Still, for something to crank up to ten and annoy the neighbours with, you could do worse.
Plants And Animals
Waltzed In From The Rumbling
04/29/2016 on Secret City Records
A pleasant surprise from a band that’s been very hit and miss since their stellar debut, Parc Avenue. Strives less for radio play than it does for campfire grit.
Paging Mr. Proust
The veteran alt-country band has lost quite a bit of oomph over the years, and their ninth album can’t hold a candle to their earlier career. Decent enough stuff, but unexceptional.
The standard-bearers for the modern Riot Grrl movement get a little slicker and a bit more commercial on their third album. It works, but I miss the fireworks and slashing of old. At least the punk rock feminist righteousness is still intact.